Trauma in the Classroom: How Teacher Self-care and Sustainability is a Solution

A friend of mine who works as a recently social worker reiterated how important adult consistency can be in children from unstable family backgrounds. In her work, she saw kids go through more than five different social workers in a row during a short period of time. She saw some kids even enter their emancipation hearings having only met their social worker once before. It’s no surprise that my friend heard kids say “I really wish the other worker was here. She really knows where I came from. She knows how much I’ve grown.”


In schools, I don’t doubt that students feel the same. Even if a student may not like a certain teacher, it’s healthy for them to know that certain adults will at the very least, always be there. It’s healthy for them to have adults who have stayed with them over time and made them feel like they have someone to rely on. And with so much change, we create a lack of institutional knowledge around each child which means kids have to constantly work to retell their story. When I went to visit my old school last year, many of my former students told me how they honestly perceived me originally leaving. One said, “I thought you were leaving because you didn’t like us.” Another told me, “I know why you left. We were really hard on you.”


Through teacher turnover, students internalize the idea that they are “too challenging” as people, and that they are not worth sticking around for. This is potentially harmful message to be giving students, particularly students from unstable backgrounds. I think I was too easily dismissive of the role my decision to leave played in their lives. With all the changing variables going on in their lives, I didn’t realize how a critical a stable school life could be towards their development.


Self-Care for teachers is not about us. It is about being the most effective care-givers and members of society we can possibly be. It is about celebrating the wins of our students and watching the whole family come through a school. It is about the joy working for youth buoying your efforts in spite of a low salary or challenges that many of our districts and schools face. It is about building the resilience to stay on the front line and make a difference.

That’s why when I left the classroom I went on a quest for practices that could allow a teacher to stay in the sweet spot. From dozens of interviews and work with over 200 educators, my partners and I built The Teaching Well.  Our goal is to provide school teams and educators with the tools and knowledge necessary to stay resilient and their best for kids in the classroom. In our next blog post, we’ll let you know a little bit more about what we offer and how it will change the landscape of public education.


Join Us at the Well!



Why Taking Care of Yourself First Actually Improves Entire School Sites

As a teacher, there are so many reasons to speed up and keep upping the pace to achieve more and “teach more,” but let The Teaching Well lay out a few reasons why your focus on self-care (and slowing down sometimes) will make a difference:

  1. The Social Emotional Role Model of our classroom is us:

Humans learn through example. On a basic level this is mimicking behavior but neuroscience calls it Mirroring. All of us have specific neurons in our brain that react and replicate the body language of someone else. When you come into your classroom, you set the stage for how students interact with each other. Being able to keep your cool in emotionally heightened situations on a consistent basis is the difference between your students learning how to work together or triggering one another. Regular Sleep, a Mindfulness practice and regular exercise can make a difference.  

2.              Student Achievement Increases in calm classrooms.

A study done at Stanford showed that students who were in calm environments where they felt “safe”, scored higher on tests. With the drive for data in our schools this fact alone makes the case to provide teachers with the tools they need to stay resilient so our students brilliance is captured on these state tests.

3.              Ed tech and Linked Learning are based on Teacher Implementation and Relationships: Our nation is committed to finding that next style of learning to build a stronger work force for the future. Whether it is Edtech or Linked Learning, two ways that state level education organizations or companies are trying to turn the tide, having teachers on the ground who understand the product or can build and maintain the relationships with local companies is the difference between a great idea that gets lost in action and a great idea that makes a difference.

4.              Community Stability is based on teacher sustainability.

12.5 million dollars is what Oakland Unified alone spends on re-hiring, training and recruiting new teachers.  And these are only dollar amounts. Can we put a number on the relationships built with families, the field trips or tutoring programs left behind, the pieced together knowledge of best health clinics, who and how to call CPS, the grocery store that gives teacher discounts, the way Tyree best learns his math. If you aren’t there, who is going to pass it on? Our students also lose. Their loss is not only an adult in their life that they relied on for emotional support,  but also that sense of community that comes from know the students above and below them had the “same” experience.

We’ll discuss more about the power behind teacher stability in our next piece. In the midst of an ever changing world, and one in which many students face daily trauma, teachers can be a powerfully stabilizing force in the lives of students, IF they can weather the rigors of teaching and stay in the classroom. That’s our goal at The Teaching Well: keep teachers joyfully and healthily in classrooms. Can you see it?

Join us at the Well!



What is the Problem with Teacher Retention Anyway?

As an educator for six years in Middle Schools throughout Oakland, I know the joy of being a public school teacher: the constant barrage of hugs that come every day, watching students learn how to time jokes, how to engage with their peers, learning how to be themselves, seeing them grow as learners and thinkers, the joy that comes from seeing a group of students defend their opinions with facts and civility.

There is nothing that has fully filled that space of joy since leaving the classroom.

However, I did leave. I had set a pace for myself that I could no longer keep up with. I had forgotten, over time, that my health and wellness mattered. I spent hours, day in and out, doing what was best for kids and slowly, over time, it began to erode my personal balance. Examples looked like:

  1. Removing a workout by taking on an extra hour of tutoring each week
  2. Eating most of my meals on the run, either in the car, while grading papers, or while lesson planning
  3. “Holding off” illness until the holiday, weekends, or breaks

I left because these micro-exchanges turned into long-term disease. By year three, I was 30 lbs heavier, exhausted, and most importantly feeling that my absence was necessary, irrelevant of the impact on my students and school.

My story is not unique. In Oakland, 70% of all teachers leave the classroom within 5 years (2012 study) and nationally it is not much better (45%).  In the teacher community it is not abnormal for March Madness to mean more than basketball or for a teacher to accept that to ½ of the their staff will not return in the fall. When taking home the trauma of our students lives or juggling roles of educator, therapist, and social worker, each year we are asked to do more whether or not funding comes in and the urgency is REAL. Teachers burn out and they leave schools that desperately need them.

Turn over has a cost. A report in Forbes Magazine estimated that teacher attrition costs the U.S. around $2.2 billion each year. Others at Forbes estimate that it can be as much as $7.3 billion a year. By state, this costs anywhere from $2 million in Delaware, to $235 million in Texas.

Equity for all students means long-term change. Long term change means teachers need to be able to stay in the classroom.

Self-Care for teachers is not about us. It is about being the most effective care-givers and members of society we can possibly be. It is about celebrating the wins of our students and watching the whole family come through your school. It is about your joy working for youth buoying your efforts in spite of low salary or challenges that many of our districts and schools face. It is about building resilience to stay on the front line and make a difference.

When excellent teachers stay in the classroom, students win. When they burn out and leave, everyone loses. That’s why we started The Teaching Well—we want to combat burnout and bolster sustainability. In our bi-monthly blog series, we will continue to give you most of the socio-historical contexts about problems with teacher sustainability as well as introduce you to some of the solutions we provide. Its time for all of us to go back to the well—the communal source of stability and wellness—a place where we can join together and thrive for the benefit of our entire communities. Welcome to The Teaching Well. Join us, and tap the well within.


Here’s to thriving,

 Kelly Knoche, Founder